We had a great showing on Thursday’s Meet the Candidate Night. Thank you to all of the candidates who participated and all of our neighbors who joined. For those who couldn’t attend, we’re providing a roundup below of comments from the candidates.
A reminder that the primary election is on May 16. If you aren’t registered, the deadline to do so is May 1. The Allegheny County Voter Registration website has more information about registering and applying for a mail in ballot.
Incumbent Deb Gross is running against Jordan Botta. Jordan was sick and unable to attend the meeting but he sent a statement highlighting some of the issues that are important to him. Part of Botta’s statement follows:
“I have heard many concerns of residents of Highland Park and I sincerely hope to help you with them. The open air firing range, stadium lights which keep neighbors awake at night, small business and rent issues, a lack of engagement and infrastructure in your beautiful park, mudslides in the pool – I have heard so many frustrations and I deeply feel for you as residents of Highland Park and District 7. I am taking all of these issues very seriously, and have given them my full attention. I have already, as a candidate, held multiple conversations and attended several meetings with residents and stakeholders, the vast majority of which have been productive.
What I can promise you is that should I be elected to serve you, residents of Highland Park and all of District 7 will see an administration that is more accessible, more accountable, and more proactive than any in recent memory. Civic service is my background, and it is where my heart resides as well. It is the job of a councilperson to advocate directly on your behalf and I promise fully to do so should I be fortunate enough to serve you.”
Botta shared his email address and phone number (412-206-9294) and invited community members to reach out with questions or concerns that he might have addressed during the candidates’ night.
Gross, who has served Highland Park and neighboring communities as our city council person for nine years, emphasized that she aims to bring the voice of the people she represents to City Council. Many of the priorities she discussed are oriented around the topic of affordability, with housing affordability a particularly prominent issue. Actions she touched on include:
- “Operationalizing affordable housing:” One example of operationalizing affordable housing is inclusionary zoning, where a portion of units are required to have lower rent. Lawrenceville, Polish Hill and Bloomfield have adopted these policies for companies that are building large developments. Gross supports bringing inclusionary zoning to neighborhoods that are experiencing building booms.
- Restricting corporate ownership of housing: Seventy percent of recent home sales in Pittsburgh were to institutional buyers, according to Gross. While some of those buyers will be house flippers, others may be corporations that plan to rent the houses as short-term rentals, on sites like Airbnb. “If you don’t want corporate ownership renting out party houses in your neighborhood, you can change that by zoning,” she said. She is helping to draft legislation right now, while doing research on how other cities have limited what she described as Airbnb cannibalizing the housing stock.
- Accessory dwelling units: ADUs are typically small houses that are built behind a house. Currently, it’s illegal to build ADUs in Pittsburgh, according to Gross. Allowing for these small homes to be built, “with control,” could help people age in place and potentially boost the amount of affordable housing in the city, she said.
- Cooperative and collective ownership: These systems allow people to buy shares into housing, gradually building equity in home ownership. Gross hopes to make this type of plan easier to implement.
- The Land Bank: Gross is in favor of streamlining the process of making available land that is owned by the city but she wants to make sure that any change in the process ensures people in the community have a voice in the process.
Other topics Gross mentioned include:
- Parks: She personally voted against the parks tax because she didn’t support the idea of a nonprofit being the allocator of funds and she’s pleased with the legislation that requires the tax revenue to be budgeted like any other capital expenditure. More broadly, Gross wants to double the park system budget to support parks and recreation centers, programming for kids after school and summer programming for kids — all of which were cut when the city was near bankruptcy, she said.
- Reducing cost burdens on lowest income households: Gross said she has been involved with utility affordability by, for instance, preventing PWSA from cutting off water, supporting investments in childcare businesses and supporting small businesses.
Finally, Gross said that she’s working on a visit from Mayor Gainey to Highland Park to discuss hot topics of concern. The event will likely be April 11, potentially at the Union Project.
Taliaferro is our incumbent school board member, having been in place since December, 2019. Her priorities center on student and staff health and safety and mental health. She also responded to questions on two important topics:
- Possible school closings, including Fulton: Taliaferro said she was the board member who made the motion to table the school closure decision that was announced during the pandemic. “The reason why I made that motion is because there wasn’t community voice and input,” she said. “If we aren’t including the voices of parents, of students, of staff and other key stakeholders, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.” While she acknowledged that there’s a discussion that has to be had about school closures given dropping enrollment, that discussion should include the perspective of schools being a community asset, not solely centered on the age and cost of buildings.
- Charter Schools: “Charters are bleeding public schools dry right now,” Taliaferro said. She wants to advocate for charter reform so that so much of the school budget doesn’t go to charter tuition and potentially to reinstate a charter reimbursement.
A resident of Morningside since 1985, Sofo said he has worked as a school superintendent, school counselor, high school principal, middle school assistant principal and charter school CEO. He said despite being at the high end comparatively in terms of spending on schools, Pittsburgh ranks low when it comes to educational results, and he wants to change that. In response to questions, he touched on the following topics:
- How to close the gap between Black and white kids: Sofo believes that kids require a better start at a younger age. His ideas include offering quality childcare for kids starting at age three, making the Head Start program available to all kids, and creating a system for ensuring that teachers have relationships with individual kids for multiple years. Understanding a student’s family situation and using that information “as assets, not liabilities,” is an approach he supports.
- Possible school closings: “Those discussions should be transparent from the beginning,” he said. However, Sofo said the focus should be on modernizing and growing the district such that students want to not only stay but come back when they have kids of their own. “Now, we’re managing it for decay,” he said. Any discussions about closures should start with conversations about goals and priorities, with children at the center of the decision making.
- Charter schools: Sofo said that charter schools have not lived up to the goal for them to be laboratories for innovation. Before deciding to run for a school board seat, Sofo said he offered to lend his experience as a charter CEO to help create a culture of innovation at Pittsburgh schools “so they never have another request for a charter,” he said. He also thinks that charter schools should be required to show a positive impact and if they don’t, “be put on notice or closed.”
There are six people running for the magistrate position to replace Mik Pappas, who is not running for reelection. Five of them spoke at the meeting; HPCC was not able to find contact information for Anthony Vaccarello so he was not invited to attend.
Kate Lovelace: Lovelace has 18 years practicing as an attorney, including five as a public attorney. She believes there aren’t enough liberal, progressive magistrates in the city and that judges tend to get desensitized. She wants the people who come in front of her as a magistrate and feel that they have a chance at winning. She also said she recognizes that the fees and fines are significant for some people. She also said she hoped to have hours outside of regular business hours to accommodate parents and students.
Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Lovelace noted that the space can’t be used for political events but she thinks it’s possible for it to be used as a community space.
Philip Roberts: Roberts grew up on Negley Ave., was a life guard at the Highland Park pool and participated in the Pittsburgh Promise program. He’s involved with a number of community organizations including EECM and Open Hand Housing Ministries. He thinks of being a magisterial district judge as a way to serve the community. He said his law experience includes housing law, civil law, criminal law and issues related to the education system. Roberts emphasized the importance of a court system built on fairness and impartiality, and seemed to criticize that there are no limits on contributions to judicial races, with some candidates receiving money from law firms.
Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Roberts said he has a plan to make the court more accessible and engaging including building a website, holding night court once a week, creating easily accessible scheduling and offering online access to forms. He envisions the court engaging with the community potentially via town hall meetings and quarterly legal seminars and clinics, potentially on topics such as livable housing conditions.
Casey Mullen: Mullen currently has a law practice focusing primarily on criminal defense. Growing up in Lawrenceville and currently living in Morningside, Mullen described himself as a unique candidate due to his background. He was arrested at 19 for drug delivery and found recovery in jail. Once released, he got into law school after four tries, ultimately graduating near the top of his class. He believes his background offers him a true understanding of the challenges of many of the people who appear before the court.
“Magistrate district courts are extremely important,” he said, since it is the only exposure to the court system for a lot of people and is also the first step in criminal proceedings. “I think the court should be empathetic and take time to understand the facts and render an appropriate decision. It’s a difficult job if you do it well,” he said.
Mullen said he wouldn’t label his approach as progressive. “My approach is everyone who comes before the court should know they have a fair hearing regardless of who they are and… what stature they have in the community,” he said. “I believe in defendants’ rights, I don’t believe in cash bail but I don’t believe everyone charged with a crime should be released. It’s important that the public is safe. That’s what makes this job difficult.”
Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Mullen said it’s important to host events that support ensuring the community understands their rights, how courts function and how the courts impact every day life.
Rachel Rosnick: Rosnick is a full-time legal aid attorney representing juveniles and young adults in magistrate courts. She’s been in front of every magistrate in the city. “I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, what usually does and what never does,” she said. Rosnick emphasized how dramatically the “cycle of fines” that often is kicked off through a magistrate hearing can derail someone’s life. She has three priorities:
- Ending the school to prison pipeline: Rosnick thinks that the current process when a young person ends up in front of the magistrate often essentially makes matters worse because it requires the young person to return and essentially be punished repeatedly, even in circumstances when the initial issue has long since been resolved.
- Cycle of fines and fees: “For most of my clients, a $450 fine might as well be a million dollars,” she said. Once someone can’t pay that fee, penalties and other costly repercussions stack up, only making matters worse. Magistrates have the ability to require a person to pay what they can or if they can’t afford it to waive some of the costs.
- Make the court less traumatizing and more respective: Rosnick has seen magistrates schedule multiple people for 8 a.m. and then stroll in at 9 a.m. She would treat people with respect.
Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Rosnick envisions holding events for landlord/tenant issues, expungement clinics and bail reform town halls.
Richard McCague: Born and raised in Pittsburgh, McCague has 30 years experience as a lawyer, including 14 years as a public defender. “I know what you end up having to do to run a good magistrates office,” he said.
When asked, McCague acknowledged that his license was suspended around 17 years ago. He was without his license for a while but it was reinstated. However, when pressed, McCague also noted that his license was suspended again in 2021 because he was held in criminal contempt. He’s currently in litigation related to the suspension.
Potential for the magistrate’s office to serve as a community space: McCague said he thinks it sounds like a good idea to be able to allow the space to be used for community events. He noted that the there are likely some regulations about what the space can and can’t be used for but that he’s supportive of uses that are allowed by law.